The Art and Architecture of C.F.A. Voysey

As a tangential way of following up on my overly hasty post on turn of the last century street scenes let me begin by saying that I’m not interested in an uncritical nostalgia for the past. Rather, I’d like to question why we assume we’re on the only right historical trajectory. What would happen if we could see that the way things are now are not the only possible way things could have turned out? In the case of those streets, for instance, what would have happened if we had planned cities on a more human scale and had not ceded so much real estate to automobiles? And why can’t we change the way we do things now?

C.F.A. Voysey: Design for a house.

Questioning this myth of progress is one of the reasons I’m so obsessed with the Arts and Crafts movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I have a sense that many art historians don’t like this period because it doesn’t fit neatly into a linear progression from representation to abstraction. It also combines a contradictory, conservative interest in historicism along with radical socialist politics. So, just like reconsidering our streets, how about we ponder what would have happened if the Arts and Crafts movement had not died in the horrors of WWI.

C.F.A. Voysey: cabinet.

Looking for some dining chairs to make for our living room, I stumbled on the work of C.F.A. Voysey, an English Arts and Crafts architect and designer. He took an obsessive gesamtkunstwerk (total art work) approach to his architectural commissions, insisting on designing not just the building but the furniture and everything down to the pen trays. Very conservative politically, he was an exception to the more progressive bent of the movement. It’s also obvious that he spent every spare moment of his life obsessively drawing.

C.F.A. Voysey: Birds of Many Climes c.1900.

Voysey’s work points to an alternate trajectory in which our art and our cities are entwined with a reverence for nature instead being at the service of machines. Instead we have the cynicism, self absorption and nihilism of Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst. And all we have to look forward to are cites soon to be clogged with self driving cars.

C.F.A. Voysey: design for wallpaper.

Though we ended up in a great crapulence, at least we can still get Voysey’s wallpaper. Put it on your kids walls and maybe it will inspire them to figure out a better future.

Street Life in San Francisco, Paris, New York, Victoria and Vancouver

Steven Pinker be damned! If you’d like evidence that history is more complex than the misguided notion that everything is always magically getting better I’d point you to these  films showing city life before our streets became sewers for cars.

I’ll get right down to my cranky point: they show that our streets and parks are worse and more impoverished since we ceded them to automobile interests.

To us who live in developed countries these street scenes can seem chaotic. I would suggest that instead of chaos they show a city life that’s more democratic. No one form of transit dominates. You can walk, ride a bike, take public transit or ride a horse and not feel like a second class citizen for not owning a car.

Here’s Victoria and Vancouver, Canada in 1907 where loose dogs seem to be a thing:

And New York:

And to notch up the crankiness let me point out that the clothes look a lot better too in the days before “athleisure.”

A Thanksgiving Debriefing

A harvest festival-ish holiday celebrating thankfulness and gratitude? What could go wrong?

This year we’re very thankful to celebrate the second anniversary of Kelly’s miraculous recovery from an aortic dissection. But, for the first time in memory, both Kelly and I did nothing on Thanksgiving. We had colds and spent the day at home watching movies. We ate pasta for dinner.

Between coughs and sniffles, I had a few idle thoughts on ways the holiday could be improved:

  • Ditch the turkey. Ask around and you’ll find out it’s probably not most people’s favorite food. Why not serve something else?
  • If you are going to serve turkey butcher it first and then roast it. Roasting it whole leads to dry meat.
  • While we’re at it how about ditching the traditional side dishes? They have the taste and texture of baby food.
  • What would happen if we gave the women in our lives a day off and had the men folk do all the work? Women seem to get the brunt of the holiday domestic duties.
  • I suspect I’m preaching to the choir to suggest skipping the consumption nightmare that is “black Friday.”

Consider this an open thread on the holiday. What did you do? Did a political debate break out at the table? Who did all the work? Have our international readers even heard of Thanksgiving? Note that our Canadian readers have had an extra month to debrief on the holiday. Comment!

Having no pictures of Pilgrims, please excuse my use of this terrible magazine cover depicting Puritans. I can’t tell the difference. Plus the central figure has the haggard look of someone who just spent the whole day making way too much mediocre food while the rest of her family kicked back and watched a bowl game.

127 Apocalypse Now with Father Mark Kowalewski

This podcast conversation with Fr. Mark Kowalewski, dean of St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral in Los Angeles, needs a longer introduction than usual because it might, at first, seem off-topic. But I think it’s safe to say that within the DNA of the urban homesteading, permaculture and ecological movements is a concern with how the world might end and the possibility of either hastening, postponing or avoiding the collapse of human civilization. Then there’s the fact that a significant portion of U.S. government officials believe in some form of a “rapture.”

Of course there are many divergent opinions on the nature of this end, everything from climate change, to energy depletion, to nuclear war to more fringy ideas such as near term extinction. I’ve always been interested in the stories that our cultures tell about the end of the world and what those stories say about present realities. Behind, on one end, the grim future of Mad Max, to another extreme, the techno optimist Mars colony fantasies of Silicon Valley executives is a ghost that haunts our imaginations about the end of things. That ghost, at least in the West, is John of Patmos and his hallucinatory book of Revelation.

Fr. Mark Kowalewski

I think it’s unfortunately too rare in our culture these days to consider the theological underpinning of the stories we tell. In this conversation Fr. Mark discusses everything from mainstream, orthodox views of apocalyptic literature to fundamentalist and evangelical notions of a “rapture.” We conclude with what these stories tell about our relationship to creation and to human culture. During the podcast Fr. Mark references:

If you’d like to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected] You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store and on Stitcher. Closing theme music by Dr. Frankenstein. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.

Choral Evensong as Meditation

St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral, Los Angeles.

Fellow thoughtstylist Rupert Sheldrake has helped create a website to promote the nearly 500 year old Anglican service of Choral Evensong. Sheldrake sees Evensong as a user-friendly form of meditation for those who might not normally cross the threshold of a church door.

Choral Evensong is a 45-min long peace-inducing church service in which the ‘song’ of voices sounding together in harmony is heard at the ‘even’ point between the active day and restful night, allowing listeners time for restful contemplation – Church members, agnostics and atheists alike. It is both free of charge and free of religious commitment, and its 470-year-old choral music tradition – established around 1549 – is performed live and often to a very high standard.

The Choral Evensong website lists places around the world where you can attend a service. If you’re in Los Angeles there is a Choral Evensong performance this Saturday November 17th at St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral at 5 p.m. I will, likely, make an appearance as the Verger. The choir is magnificent and St. John’s is one of Los Angeles’ hidden architectural masterpieces.

You can also listen to Choral Evensong on the BBC via the website and app. It’s the longest running show on the BBC.